Food-borne illness or food poisoning is the primary danger of eating outdated ice cream; But the date on the container is not the only information you need to decide whether ice cream is safe to eat. It also matters how long ago it was purchased, when it was opened and how safely it has been stored.
Bacterial contamination is the main danger posed by old ice cream. Foods spoiled by bacteria -- which may look, smell and taste just fine -- can make us sick. Bacteria thrive in protein-rich foods that are also full of water including eggs, poultry, meat, fish and milk products. Freezing ice cream and other frozen dairy products slows bacterial growth but doesn't kill the bacteria, which begin to grow again as food thaws. The risk of food-borne illness increases after ice cream has been opened and used. Discard any ice cream that thaws completely, due to the danger of bacterial growth.
People most vulnerable to food-borne illnesses are those already seriously ill or who have compromised immune systems. Young children, pregnant women and seniors are also more vulnerable. Symptoms of food borne illnesses, which often go unreported, usually resemble stomach flu – fever, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting dehydration and diarrhea -- and may last just a few hours or several days. Illness may be mild or very serious, depending on the bacteria involved.
Buying Ice Cream
Buy ice cream, ice milk, frozen yogurt and sherbet by the date stamped on the carton, which is the “sell by” date. Make sure that ice cream and other frozen desserts are frozen solid and that the container is not frosted or sticky, an indication that it has partially thawed at some point. Request that ice cream be wrapped in an insulated bag or double bagged to reduce melting on the way home. True ice cream connoisseurs might want to bring an insulated cooler in the car, to keep it as cold as possible in transit.
Storing Ice Cream
Ice cream that hasn’t been opened can be safely stored at home at zero degrees Fahrenheit for up to two months. If you plan to store ice cream for longer than a month, wrap the carton with plastic wrap or freezer paper to preserve the ice cream’s quality. Once the container has been opened it can be safely stored for two to three weeks before being considered “old,” though for creamy texture and overall quality try to use it within seven to 10 days. Place plastic wrap over the ice cream’s surface, inside the container, to protect texture and minimize the development of ice crystals.
- Clemson University Extension; Safe Handling of Milk & Dairy Products; P.H. Schmutz, et al.; March 2007
- University of Virginia Cooperative Extension; Food Storage Guidelines For Consumers; Renee Boyer; May 2009
- University of Nebraska CooperatriveExtension ibn Lancaster County; Decoding Food Product Dates; Alice Henneman; January 2005
- The Partnership for Food Safety Education: Least Wanted Foodborne Pathogens
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Bacteria and Foodborne Illness